Tuesday, January 15, 2013

EF88: Australia’s Next-Generation Assault Rifle

EF88 with 16” barrel shown with Ase Utra suppressor, Trijicon TA44SR-10 1.5×16 ACOG, and folding foregrip. Centre: EF88 with 20” barrel, fitted with Trijicon 4×32 BAC ACOG, Madritsch ML40AUS grenade launcher, and Thales Australia-designed quadrant sight with mounted Trijicon RMR. Bottom: F88SA2 (current Australian Defence Force service rifle) with RM Equipment M203PI grenade launcher, Knight’s Armament Company quadrant sight, and standard 1.5x ring sight. 

In September 2012, I had the opportunity to visit Lithgow (New South Wales, Australia) at the invitation of Thales Australia in order to conduct a Test and Evaluation (T&E) of their Enhanced F88 Assault Rifle. This weapon is being developed for the Australian Defence Force (ADF) under the Land 125 Phase 3C program. Pending the results of Department of Defence testing, this rifle will be in the early stages of manufacturing in 2014. A version of the EF88, with several minor differences, is being marketed globally by Thales as the F90, drawing directly on the Australian small arms experience. The EF88 is the latest iteration of the long-serving F88 Austeyr; this updated weapon has been designed and produced more than 20 years after the first F88 rifles entered service in Australia, and over 35 years since the Steyr AUG on which it is based was first designed in Austria. Fundamentally, the EF88 remains much the same as its predecessors: a bullpup-configuration selective fire weapon, chambered for the 5.56x45mm NATO cartridge, short-stroke piston operated and firing from a closed bolt.

Despite core similarities, the EF88 features a number of improvements designed to make the weapon more user-friendly and more combat effective. Many of these changes were inspired by a combination of operational user input and Defence specifications, whilst others were entirely Thales Australia’s own concepts.  In fact, Thales Australia made a corporate decision to exceed the specifications laid out by Defence in Land 125, and have upgraded their operations at Lithgow from ‘build-to-print’ manufacturing to encompass a true Original Equipment Manufacturer (OEM) capability.

A lot of the experience that made this possible was gained during the F88SA2 program. As some readers may be aware, the F88SA2 has actually been made in two different series. The F88SA2 first saw service in 2009 and sported a two-tone colour change, a longer upper rail, and a bespoke side bracket to allow the fitting of a Night Aiming Device (NAD) or flashlight. The 2009 series experienced a technical issue, occasionally failing to fully lock with a full magazine after being manually cocked. Many users had taken to only loading 28 or 29 cartridges in each magazine as a way of combating this issue. In 2010, Thales made a series of reliability enhancements to the F88SA2 executed through a series of tolerance changes, more stringent gauging, and minor design changes. This experience, both in updating the F88 and F88SA1 to F88SA2 standard, as well as in refining manufacturing processes for the F88SA2 2010 series, has contributed to Thales Australia’s capability to produce a new assault rifle which significantly exceeds Defence’s stated requirements.

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